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Crossing the Touchline: Crew vs. LAFC

What to expect from the first Black & Gold’s Saturday opponent from someone who knows the team well.

MLS: Austin FC at Los Angeles FC Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to unfamiliar teams for the Columbus Crew, LAFC is close to the top of the list. The Crew host the Los Angeles side on Saturday for just the third meeting since LAFC became a team in 2018.

Despite sitting in second place in the Western Conference and in the Supporters’ Shield standings, LA enters this match on the back of two straight losses, including falling 2-1 at home on Wednesday to Austin FC. MLS’s other Black & Gold, actually hasn’t won in three games and is in the middle of a busy stretch of matches.

To learn more about an infrequent opponent, Massive Report spoke with Alicia Rodriguez, who covers LAFC with SB Nation’s Angels on Parade.

Massive Report: If there’s one thing that outsiders notice about LAFC in 2022 it is the team does not like losing. After two standout seasons to start in MLS, the last two years have been difficult, 2021 especially. LAFC already has seven wins this season, just five away from the team’s entire 2021 total, and aside from recent results, have started strong. What’s a key to you that’s different this year than years past?

Angels on Parade: There’s two main reasons things seem refreshed this season. First, the change in head coach: Bob Bradley did wonders to get LAFC off the ground and establish a playing style that I think has helped push MLS forward, but it seemed pretty clear last year there was a disconnect and I think it’s safe to wonder if his intensity wore his players down and they weren’t getting the message as clearly as before. In the end, parting ways turned out to be for the best for everyone. Under new head coach Steve Cherundolo, the playing style hasn’t changed drastically, he’s mostly worked to make the approach more balanced so the defense wouldn’t get hung out to dry, and otherwise tweaked things for the squad.

The other factor is as significant in my opinion, in bringing in a ton of MLS experience. The past couple years, LAFC had mostly signed players from abroad, and with the international slots filled or close to it, the squad depth was bad last year and it showed in the results. This offseason, they added Maxime Crepeau, Kellyn Acosta, Ilie Sanchez, Ryan Hollingshead and Franco Escobar, who are all regular starters and have lifted the team’s level. Another experienced addition, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, has been limited by injuries but has a game-winner and two goals in extremely limited minutes. Doneil Henry is another center back added who can be starter-caliber if he gets a real run. Effectively, LAFC both upgraded their starting XI and raised the floor of the squad’s depth, and both factors have been vital for the team.

  1. MR: LAFC averages two goals per match so far this season, an astounding 24 in 12 games. Part of that is 13 different players scoring a goal this season. What makes LAFC’s attack so diverse in goal scoring and what’s a name should Crew supporters should watch for that isn’t Carlos Vela?

AoP: Two things have contributed to the scoring load being shared for LAFC: They’re getting a ton of production on set pieces and they’re getting a lot of production from their bench. Both factors, over the course of a season, could be fluky and may not lead to consistent production throughout, but they’re literally setting club records in these areas already, just a third of the way into the season, so that’s obviously helping a lot.

Probably the most consistent scoring option after Vela (who, coincidentally, scored on Wednesday after going quiet for about two months) is Cristian Arango, who only has two league goals so far this season but was the leading scorer last year. Arango is streaky, so the hope is he hits a run of form and really comes to life, but Cherundolo has also not really played him all the time, either, with Kwadwo Opoku being the constant in attack, believe it or not. The Ghanaian is the leading candidate to be LAFC’s breakout player so far this season, and he has a knack for creating chances for himself, which every team needs from time to time. Having said all that, with how much the scoring load has been shared, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly who will get the next goal, and so far, that’s been a pretty good approach for LAFC.

  1. MR: Lately, LAFC’s dealt with match congestion, with Saturday’s match being the team’s third in seven days. So far, Vela’s started all 12 too. What is LAFC likely to do against an Eastern Conference team on the back end of two tough losses to the Colorado Rapids and Austin? Should Crew supporters plan to see the superstar Vela start or will Cherundolo look for either a smash and grab win or draw, followed by a quick exit out of Columbus? In other words, what do you think happens with the lineup and result on Saturday?

AoP: I think you’re right to wonder if Vela will start. In the past, Vela has been pretty adamant he wants to play all the time (which in itself breaks old stereotypes from his time in Europe) but after a couple injury-hit seasons, he’s probably realized some rest now and then won’t hurt. While Cherundolo rotated heavily in the loss at Colorado, arguably disrupting the team’s rhythm so much that they looked outright bad in that game, I do think there’s a decent chance we’ll see some rotations again in Columbus, and that could include Vela. The main reason is the next game is not only a knockout game, in the U.S. Open Cup, but it’s against archrival LA Galaxy in Carson. That game will be and has to be the priority, and so I think some key players, perhaps including Vela, will sit out against the Crew or only come off the bench. I’m sure Columbus won’t be sad if that turns out to be the case. But I also don’t think LAFC is going to punt on this game, either, especially since they’re coming off consecutive losses for the first time this year, and going into El Trafico off three straight losses would be rather worrisome.